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Science in Utah high schools missing more than one link

Strong standards for state’s youngsters weaken as students approach college.

First Published Jun 13 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:33 pm

As Utah begins a $10 million push to boost science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) education, a national education foundation found the state’s science standards have critical gaps, especially in high school.

High school physics and chemistry standards are missing key topics, including Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, modern physics such as lasers and nuclear power, organic chemistry and writing chemical equations, the analysis said.

At a glance

— States’ science grades

A Thomas B. Fordham Institute analysis found science standards in 20 states, including Utah, are stronger than new Next Generation Science Standards. How they graded states:

A: District of Columbia and five states, including California and Massachusetts

B: 7 states, including Utah

C: 12 states

D: 16 states

F: 10 states, including Idaho

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But the standards include an "excellent" treatment of evolution and are strong for kindergarten through second grade, earning the state an overall "B" from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. It ranked Utah 13th nationally.

The nonprofit analyzed science standards across the nation and compared them to Next Generation Science Standards, developed by 26 states and groups such as the National Research Council and the National Science Teachers Association.

The Fordham report, released Thursday, urges states not to adopt the new standards released in April, saying they’re poorer than those in place in 20 states, including Utah. The report was written by a team of science and education professors from universities nationwide.

Debra Roberts, state school board chairwoman, has said the state does not plan to adopt the Next Generation standards, but would review them as Utah continues to revise its own.

Utah’s science standards are about a decade old and officials are hashing out a timeline to develop new ones, said Sarah Young, science specialist at the state education office.

The office has picked seventh grade as an area that needs improvement — the standards were designed for half-year courses but most schools teach a full year, Young said.

The Fordham analysis may be considered in the revision process, Young said, but officials will examine whether its recommendations are "feasible in a classroom and if it prepares students to be college- and career-ready."

Utah’s science standards do a good job of preparing elementary school students, such as introducing geology and fossils in earth sciences early, the report said.

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The state also earned praise for its handling of evolution, focusing on DNA, fossil records and comparing today’s species to those that have died out.

But the analysis said critical content is missing from high school standards across topics. Earth science lessons, it said, neglect a critical element: the factors that shape climate.

Physics requirements don’t incorporate relevant math lessons, the report said. They ask high school students to recall formulas, such as the relationships between speed, wavelength and frequency of waves. But they do not have the students put them to use by calculating those elements of a particular wave.

When Utah high school graduates get to Weber State University, nearly half need remedial help with math, said Barbara Trask, associate dean of the college of science. She sees the same discrepancy the report notes: Utah students often have a good understanding of content but struggle to use it to solve problems.

"They know what a cell is, what the parts of the cell are, what they do," said Trask, also a professor of zoology. But when asked to critically analyze data, she said, "They’re not as well-prepared as they could be."

Students have "memorized a lot of things. It’s just that the ability to be able to use what they’ve learned in a new situation" can be missing, she said.

Lawmakers this year set aside $10 million for a STEM education center and technology and training for teachers. The center will first focus on improving math instruction for middle school students and increasing college math readiness.

Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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